You know, what is the greatest advantage of being extremely predictable with paining consistency? Even when you do something ordinary unpredictably, it becomes extraordinary. Rafael Nadal, after gaining a strong two sets to love lead against Roger Federer towards his quest for his record-tying sixth championship at Roland Garros, lost the third set against the run of play, and found himself 0-40 in the first game of the fourth. He was one point away from losing his third straight game on serve. This break would have given Roger Federer immense confidence and positive energy to carry him to the deciding set. Who knows, with a rain break or two, he could have even pulled out the unthinkable.
Nadal saved two break points, but was still a point away from being a break down. He started serving on the ad court, and Federer, predictably, leaned on his backhand to return serve, as was the case for 95 percent of the points today. Nadal, instead, served an ordinary serve on Federer’s forehand. Not much pace, well inside the service box. Federer failed to touch it as Nadal brought back the game on deuce. He held the game, and went on to win five of the next six games towards his sixth championship win here.
Amongst all his six titles, this one was the toughest. He lost two sraight finals to Novak Djokovic on clay and was stretched to five sets for the first time on this court. He looked out of sorts in the first week as Federer and Djokovic were raking comfortable wins, he admitted he was experiencing physical and mental fatigue, and consciously felt that he was not playing well enough to win the tournament.
Yet, like all great champions, he stepped up when it mattered. The first signs of this came up when he played a solid match against his French Open nemesis, Robin Soderling, and then against Andy Murray. Today, he played the best match he has played all year—on clay, or otherwise.
And he needed to.
Federer looked loose from the start, and Nadal looked tight. And that is understandable. Rafa still had a lot to lose today, whereas, for the first time in their meetings here, Federer was not chasing something—he already has the French Open and the career slam. He was playing so well that he hardly missed a first serve, a forehand or a backhand. Or a drop shot. Well, until he was a point away from wrapping up the first set 6-2. With an open court ahead of him, he attempted a dropper, which marginally missed the line. So marginally, that the chair umpire had to take his familiar steps down from the chair, onto the court, and confirm the mark. Rafa, who had trouble holding his serve till then, miraculously held, and went on to break Federer twice to win the first set out of nowhere. Just like it had happened to Djokovic on Friday, Federer lost his confidence entirely after losing the first set. The tide had turned towards the inevitable, and the predictable.
Nadal too, like Federer has achieved it all—even if he is behind Federer in terms of accomplishments. He has the career slam, an Olympic gold and two Davis Cups wins. And it showed once he won today. He fell to his knees, but only momentarily, and stood up towards the net. It was fitting that his reaction on equaling the record was exactly like his predecessor’s. A couple of moments on the knees, and then stand up to congratulate the opponent against whom there is no love lost. He still called his opponent the greatest—even though John McEnroe did his best to make him speak otherwise, and apologized—again—to Federer for the victory. He greeted the crowd with “Bonjour”, and thanked them for their support today with the limited French that he knows—even though there was hardly any during the match, or even during the presentation. Just like it has been the case every year.
It just shows the greatness of this man, on how such an overtly emotional guy is able to get rid of it when the situation demands. As the Spanish national anthem began, there were tears in the eyes on his father. The emotions in his veins is hereditary—and true. Which is why it was not hard to believe him when he said he was not playing well enough to win the tournament. Up until you saw him biting that trophy again, anyway.